Monthly Archives: November 2008

Discussion List Technology

When I started evaluating the IA Institute overall tech infrastructure I was not expecting the messiest part to be related to the various discussion lists we provide to the community. I was first surprised, now I’m annoyed.

The list software we use is Mailman, which is extremely popular and very good at one thing: delivering mail. I guess they chose a pretty appropriate name for it. Other than that, it’s pretty sucky.

My intention when I started to take a look at our discussion lists was to understand how extensible our technology was to support any future plans (indexing archives, subscribing to threads, integration list subscription with membership profile, RSS subscription, etc). What I’ve found is a messy legacy that needs to be at least normalized before we can think of expanding its capabilities.

Here’s a list of all the discussion lists we have:

  • aifia-announce -IA Institute announcements.
  • AIfIA-da -Om informationsarkitektur på dansk
  • Aifia-education -Discussion of IA education
  • AIfIA-es -Instituto para la Arquitectura de Información
  • Aifia-fr – IA discussion in French
  • Aifia-it – IA discussion in Italian
  • Aifia-ja – IA discussion in Japanese
  • Aifia-mentoring – AIfIA Mentoring Initiative
  • Aifia-metrics – Towards standard methods and metrics for evaluating IA
  • AIfIA-nl – IA discussion in Dutch
  • AIfIA-pt – IA discussion in Portuguese
  • Aifia-tools – Discussion list for the AIfIA Tools initiative
  • Advisors – IAI Advisors
  • Arqinf -Lista de Discusión sobre Arquitectura de la Información
  • Board – Board of Directors
  • Directors – IAI Board of Directors
  • Eastcoastretreat – New Challenges Retreat list
  • eiaproject – Higher Education in IA Working Group
  • EnterpriseIA – Enterprise IA Discussion List
  • iai-aunz – Australia New Zealand Region IA Discussion List
  • iai-jobs -IA Institute Job Newsletter
  • Iai-Members – IA Institute Members Discussion List
  • Iai-Mentoring – IAI Mentoring Discussion List
  • Iai-Newsletter – IA Institute Newsletter
  • IAI-pt – Lista de Discussão AI-pt
  • iai-translations – IAI Translations Discussion List
  • Localgroups – local IA groups
  • Management – IAI Management
  • Meta IAI – Meta List
  • Secondlife – IA Institute Second Life Discussion List
  • Test – yes, it’s what you are guessing
  • Ux-Management – UX Management Discussion List
  • From this list it should be easy to tell that we (the IA Institute) have not been big on naming conventions. I created some of these lists at one point or another as I volunteered in different initiatives, but I didn’t even know all of them were out there. I would love to be able to go to the IAI website and just know what’s available (right now the site shows a partial list).

    Some of these lists, I am sure, are dead. But somebody forgot to pull the plug. Also, between managing subscribers and moderating discussions, there is this horrible thing called the discussion list interface. Mailman as I said before is good at one thing and that’s not its user interface. It’s impressively adequate in terms of multi-lingual support and is flexible enough that you can customize presentation to fit your website (We have tried before), but if you don’t have a standard way to to do in an organization with such high volume, this mess is inevitable.

    If it’s not clear from the rant above, many lists still have our old organization name (Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture) and are hosted at ibiblio.org, which provides free discussion lists. Another issue: We host our site and systems on Dreamhost. Their Mailman implementation doesn’t allow me to go directly and finagle with the lists directly (like merge archives or modify the code) so I have to ask them to do it, which means any changes may take a while.

    Now that I’ve bitched about the current situation, here’s what I believe needs to happen:

  • Get rid of lists we don’t need to maintain.
  • Evaluate if an alternate software to Mailman is a better fit for our organization
  • Create some basic guidelines for starting discussion lists
  • Migrate ibiblio discussion lists to iainstitute.org
  • Merge archives of lists that should be consolidated
  • Notify subscribers about any plans
  • Do you have experience with discussion lists? Drop me a note if you have any advice or suggestions. I’m particularly interested in systems that have discussion lists associated with member/profile management associated with other services. Anyone has experience with Drupal; any Drupal modules for discussion lists?

    Do what you want to do

    Today is my birthday. As I have done in previous years, it’s the time when I stop and think about the past year and what I want from the year ahead. This year was notable for its inconsistency; many highs and many lows, not much middle-of-the-road unless you look at the average. I am very critical of myself and it’s easier to focus on the lows than remember the high points, which is why this is an important annual exercise for me.

    I should start with the fact that I got married. That is definitely the highlight of the year. I can’t begin to explain how weird it is to go from thinking that an official marriage was never a possibility for consideration, to actually calling someone your wife. I didn’t need the signed document to feel married to the person I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with since the first time I laid eyes on her back in 2001, but now that I have it, I understand what it means. It remains to be seen how the US legislation will evolve and how societal understanding of this will evolve, but the fact is, I am now a married lady and as far as I’m concerned, nothing will change that.

    I realize now that I didn’t write a post like this last year on my birthday (I have no idea why), which is a shame because it was when Mel graduated (summa cum laude!) from Med school, which meant the end of our endless Pittsburgh-Philadelphia weekend commute that lasted 4 years. We also bought a house, which has been a super fun non-stop furnishing/improvement project and when we introduced Smokey Lonesome to the household.

    This year I also realized the impact that moving to the US really had on me. Two really bad things happened: One, I have lost much of my ability to speak my native language and two, I pretty much lost touch with everyone I knew back home, including family and friends. Not just that, but I realized that since I moved to Philly I became so focused on work that didn’t really invest time in developing new local friendships, exploring my personal interests or doing the kind of learning that I enjoy. This is strange for two reasons: I am always busy and I have relationships with people all over the place (maintained online mostly).

    The always busy part is also a symptom of that good old procrastination combined with a lack of clear direction. Fortunately, I snapped out of it occasionally and did some sensible things like moving on to a new role at work that would allow me to further develop my professional interests and re-joining the Information Architecture Institute leadership.

    That procrastination thing still bothered me. It got to a point it was getting me really down. As usual, there would be moments of extreme productivity, enjoyment and happiness, soon to be followed by not wanting to do much, letting things pile up and stop pursuing the things that interest me. At the lowest points, this bad funk was pretty depressing; to the point of manifesting itself via physical pain (back pain, joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, you name it).

    That was actually good because forced me to do something. I thought it was an actual physical problem so I went to a doctor for the first time in years (everything is good there!) and even got me to try a chiropractor (which now that tried I can say for sure: Quacks!). I was not convinced so I decided to go into therapy – maybe there was an upstairs problem – that was actually pretty good and helped me talk through whatever I thought was the problem and get some perspective.

    The reality is I procrastinate because I need stimuli. If I am not challenged I’ll invent problems to solve. Procrastinating is a great way to do that. The most mundane thing becomes a thrilling challenge when you have to get it done under pressure. Oh that silly human brain…

    Figuring out the problem is half of the solution so that was definitely a big highlight for the year. Unfortunately, years upon years of procrastination do amount to a certain surplus of abandoned projects, unfulfilled commitments, burnt bridges and guilt. Which leads me to my resolutions for this year.

    Today I’m declaring information and commitment bankruptcy. Bankruptcy means declaring an inability to pay creditors. In this case I’m qualifying it as information and commitment bankruptcy because I’m just unable to catch up on my procrastination debt. I tried. I’ve been trying for months and I just can’t. I get a million things done and it’s not even a dent on the things I think I’m supposed to do.

    I have email boxes with thousands of messages, hard drives with thousands of files and cabinets with hundreds of folders, all unfinished business. What caused this is now very obvious to me. I am just too damn good: I feel like I can do everything. That’s a curse! Specially when you don’t do a good job at differentiating what you CAN do from what you WANT to do.

    This next year I am going to focus on what I want to do. I’m going to learn how to differentiate want and can for myself, and stop trying to be the cheerleader and save the world too. That ought to help me understand what I should/should not do and must/must not do. And with filing for information and commitment bankruptcy here’s what I ask of you: if you and I have had an exchange, agreement or I already failed you, let’s renegotiate. I don’t want to let you down and I don’t want to let myself down.

    Bankruptcy is shameful if it’s just a cop-out. You don’t declare financial bankruptcy then get a new credit card to go shopping. I know I can’t pay my procrastination dept but I can not incur in new debt so I don’t end up in the same place in the future. And as far as information goes, I know the flow and volume of information I’m exposed to and feel like I need to act on will not diminish, but I’m trying to learn to accept and be ok with the fact that I have no control over that.

    PS: Writing all this up is kind of weird because in the past year my online relationships have grown a lot and I know many more will likely read this than in the past. About to hit publish on this thing and the vulnerable light on my dashboard is blinking. But that’s ok, I guess. I’d rather you get to know me as me than whatever other image of me there might be, heightened or misguided.

    Here’s to a great year!

    Help me write my job description

    A few weeks ago I joined the IA Institute board of directors. At the IAI, you run to be part of the board and later the specific roles and responsibilities are defined (first electing a president, a treasurer and a secretary to satisfy our non-profit legal requirements, then assigning particular responsibilities to the other directors).

    When we first started discussing roles, my main desire was to become the IAI Ombudsman. Having ran for the board on a platform of transparency, I thought the Ombudsman role would be a good way to introduce an initiative-agnostic role that remained 100% accessible to the membership and was able to directly respond to their needs.

    Regardless of my desire to play the role of an open channel of communication that helps things get addressed, someone needed to take on the oversight of the Institute’s IT and Membership (which is corresponds to customer service, tech ops, and all systems). I volunteered to take these on because they seemed to be the most related to the things I wanted to do as an Ombudsman.

    A problem became apparent to me right away: an Ombudsman, by definition, is supposed to be independent, neutral and impartial to do their job well. From the IAO Standards of Practice:

    1.1 The Ombudsman Office and the Ombudsman are independent from other organizational entities.
    1.2 The Ombudsman holds no other position within the organization which might compromise independence.

    I have been trying to reconcile how I could play the Ombudsman role while being the director responsible for infrastructure oversight and the reality is that it’s just incompatible. Having spent the past few weeks learning about how the Institute runs, what the various systems are, who does what and what is currently understood as needs of the membership, it was not a big leap to figure out I needed to re-frame my role.

    I thought lots about whether I should withdraw from the board so I could become the Ombudsman, but seeing where the current infrastructure is today, I think being the director of infrastructure is a better match for me and for the Institute *right now*. To address my concerns on the Institute’s transparency and foster a culture of openness, communication and accountability, we need systems and tools that support people working that way.

    I know I have the right skills to lead that charge (as I design systems for a living) and I am interested in the kinds of infrastructure issues the Institute has today (more on that in a future post). There is plenty of work to do so I decided to write a job description to help me focus the time and energy I’m volunteering and so anyone knows how to use that time and energy. Please help me refine!

    Director of Infrastructure

    The director of infrastructure is responsible for overseeing the planning and development of systems and technologies needed to support and maintain the services and initiatives associated with the Information Architecture Institute.

    Key responsibilities

  • Evaluate the short and long-term value and impact of technology decisions.
  • (When someone chooses to deploy a CMS, create a new feature or tweak existing services, I should be able to assess how this affects our overall infrastructure in terms of technology, cost and effort, and help them make the right choices).

  • Ensure infrastructure projects are properly managed and executed
  • (When we need to do something that contributes to the Institute’s infrastructure, I need to make sure projects have a clear purpose and sufficient resources to succeed, in addition to support and encourage contributors to move things along).

  • Keep the Institute and members abreast of infrastructure improvement plans
  • (During my time in this role, I need to involve institute members and keep them informed about what’s going on and set expectations about the direction things are going to ensure it’s in line with what everyone needs.)

  • Assess the infrastructure wants and needs of new initiatives
  • (When a new project comes around, I should offer advice and guidance so project champions are aware of what’s available to them and what they can build on)

  • Direct the Institute’s resources towards the highest value opportunities
  • (To get things done, I need to be mindful of the cost and benefit of utilizing our staff versus reaching out to the community for help and support)

  • Assess the organization’s ability to maintain core systems operational
  • (Evaluate, on an ongoing basis, how well the Institute can maintain it’s various services and advise the board of directors on areas of opportunity and risk)

  • Ensure a smooth role transition to the next director of infrastructure in office
  • (By the time I’m done with my term on the board of directors, I will have a transition plan for the next person who will take this role to ensure quality knowledge transfer and continuity of permanent efforts)

    My goal is that my platform of transparency, vision and empowerment is well translated in the openness, communication and accountability of this role. Any thoughts, edits and additions much appreciated.